Four of the seven leading political parties have backed calls for all MPs to have constituency offices that are accessible to disabled people.
Despite public announcements professing support for making it easier for disabled people to participate in politics, the Conservatives and Labour parties have so far refused to back the call from disabled campaigners.
In recent weeks, Disability News Service (DNS) has revealed that the Conservative disabled people’s minister, Mark Harper; the Liberal Democrat women and equalities minister, Jo Swinson; and the Conservative work and pensions secretary, Iain Duncan Smith; all work from inaccessible constituency offices.
Both Duncan Smith and Swinson have offices that are on the first floor of a building with no lift.
In the wake of these stories, DNS has contacted the seven major parties across England, Scotland and Wales to ask them to back calls from disabled campaigners for political parties to ensure that all their MPs only rent constituency offices that are fully accessible to disabled people.
Plaid Cymru was the first party to back their call. Its equalities spokesman Lindsay Whittle said: “As politicians we should be as accessible as possible to the people we represent, and a basic way to make this happen is by ensuring that everyone is able to visit our constituency offices.
“I back calls for the offices of all elected representatives to be made accessible to disabled people.”
Baroness Brinton, the Liberal Democrats’ newly-elected party president and herself a wheelchair-user, said she “absolutely” agreed that constituency offices should be accessible.
She said it would not be reasonable to expect MPs with long leases to move into more accessible premises, but she plans to write to all the party’s MPs “asking what their arrangements are, and if their premises are not accessible asking what they are looking to do about it and when they might be changing their leases and could look at somewhere that was accessible”.
And she said that, although the party cannot force any newly-elected MPs to rent an accessible constituency office – as MPs are not employed by the party – she would recommend that they do so.
UKIP’s disability spokeswoman, Star Etheridge, also a wheelchair-user, said the answer was “a resounding ‘yes’ from UKIP” to the call from DPAC and Disability Politics UK.
An SNP spokesman said his party also backed the call for all constituency offices to be accessible.
He said: “Access to democracy is a priority. The more citizens can engage in the political process the better – as we saw from the amazing turnout and participation in last year’s referendum.
“The SNP is always looking at ways to improve public access to constituency offices and greater involvement for constituents.”
But despite repeated attempts from DNS to secure a response from the Conservative party, a spokesman for the party’s chair, Grant Shapps, has so far refused to comment.
And Kate Green, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, has also refused to say whether she backs the call for all MPs’ constituency offices to be accessible.
She said in a statement: “MPs and their staff should enquire about constituents’ access needs when arranging to meet them, and should hold surgeries and meetings in accessible buildings.
“Like everyone else, MPs are required to make reasonable adjustments, including to meet the needs of disabled staff members.”
But she did not respond to attempts to ask her to clarify her party’s position.
A Green party spokesman said: “Our policy on accessibility… would certainly suggest that we would be supportive of calls for all MPs’ constituency offices to be fully accessible, but… we don’t have an existing policy on this specific issue at this time.”
Deborah King, co-founder of Disability Politics UK, said: “It is encouraging to hear the responses of the minor parties.
“Spending public money on constituency office space which excludes disabled people is unacceptable.
“Getting more disabled people into politics means making changes at the grassroots.
“The Labour and Conservative parties need to take the lead to convince disabled people they are serious about equality. Or are disabled people just vote fodder to be patted on the head at election time?”
She added: “Disabled people need to be able to volunteer or do paid work for an MP. We would like people to tweet and email Grant Shapps and Kate Green in support of accessible constituency offices.”
Linda Burnip, a co-founder of DPAC, said: “It is an abysmal state of affairs and shows how little thought the majority of politicians give to disabled voters.
“However, in at least 68 constituencies disabled voters could hold the future of these same politicians in their hands in the coming general election and we are determined that our votes will count and lead to real change.”
30 January 2015